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3 Dec 2020

The past in the post

Written by Ana Sanchez-De la Vega, Visitor Services Supervisor, The Tenement House
Old stamped envelopes are laid across a table on top of a tablecloth. A plate of drop scones and a teacup can be seen just behind them.
Agnes’s letters help paint a clearer picture of the past.
Using some of the letters found at the Tenement House, we can travel back in time to learn from Agnes, her family and friends about a bygone era in their own ‘voices’.

Agnes Toward, who lived at the Tenement House in Glasgow from 1911 until 1965, held onto many letters throughout her life – from her childhood until she was in her 80s. She corresponded frequently with her family and friends both at home and abroad.

As one of the few means of communication available to Agnes, ink and paper would have been a constant in her daily life. Agnes was very organised and often even kept copies of the letters she sent. This gives us a fascinating insight into Agnes’s daily life, her points of view and her experiences – and about what her neighbours were like!

Travel back in time with us as we examine some of the letters that she kept, which are now part of our archive. In this post we take a look at some early letters to discover more about Agnes’s childhood.

A montage image shows a sepia photo of William Toward and a handwritten letter, as well as a card from the Lamb’s Hotel in Dundee. The letter reads: Lambs Hotel, Dundee, 3rd Oct 1883. My dear Miss Reid, Pardon me for a moment of ardour I overstepped the bounds of good manners in addressing you by your Christian name without your liberty. I have been feeling [?] uncomfortable all day and can't ask much at the risk of troubling you with another letter I make my apology to you. I would not offend you for the world and [?]. You will forgive me for ... [The second page is hidden behind the first.]

This letter was written in 1883 by Agnes’s father, William Toward, during his courtship with her mother, Agnes Reid.

Victorians had strict rules about courtship, and even William Toward was caught out! In this letter he apologises to Agnes Reid for referring to her by her first name – something that was only acceptable after a couple were engaged.

William was a travelling merchant, which meant he was often away from home and letters were an important part of their relationship. Through their correspondence, preserved by their daughter Agnes, we can get an idea of the couple’s loving relationship.

William Toward and Agnes Reid were married the following year, in 1884, just four years before William passed away suddenly in 1888. Mrs Toward never remarried.

The Lamb’s Hotel was later known as Meadow House and still stands in Dundee as a listed building.

A montage image of sepia photographs of Mrs Toward and Agnes’s grandmother beside the letter that was sent to Agnes. The letter reads: 15 Baker Street, Garnethill, Glasgow, 16th June 1893. My dear little chicken, I hope you got safe down to Millport and that you took Grandma to the right house for you know she would not be able to get there without a little helper. I am sure you will be very busy telling Grandma where to get all the things and now wee dearie please to be quite happy and enjoy yourself for mama's sake and grow big and fat and strong and brown and go to the meeting [?] wee girlie be sure to write me a letter and give me all the news. Now good night wee dearie and [?] xxxxxxxxxx from your own mamama xxxxx

This letter was written to Agnes by her mother in the summer of 1893, when Agnes was six years old. She was spending a holiday in Millport with her maternal grandmother. Agnes would have gone ‘doon th’ watter’ on a paddle steamer along the River Clyde. At the time her mother was working as a dressmaker at her drapery shop at 356 St Vincent Street, not far from the Tenement House.

A montage image of a sepia photograph of a young Agnes Toward standing by the window, shown beside her handwritten letter. The letter reads: 271 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 20 Feb 1897. Dear Mamma, I am writing you a little letter. I am going to write you one every Saturday and you might write me one on Saturday night. Your name is not to be Mrs No Mercy. It was just because I was cross at the time. If you are not out to-night, Will Gramma get me the lead or will you get me some out of another pencil. Please show me the little pencil sooooon sooooon sooooon. I will just have to keep that letter I have for Rita till Monday. Please write me a letter soon. This is a pretty long letter. I hope yours will be the same. This is all just now xxxxx goodbye. [At the bottom of the letter is a doodle of a lady stroking a cat, labelled by Agnes as mummy and Tib]

Agnes kept many letters from her childhood, especially to her mother. They had a very close relationship. Agnes was Mrs Toward’s only surviving child, after two other daughters passed away in infancy.

This letter gives us an insight about Agnes’s childhood at home with her cat Tib and shows that her passion about putting pen to paper started from an early age.

A montage image of a handwritten letter (slightly torn at the top)beside a sepia photograph of Ellen Toward. She wears a smart jacket, hat and fur muff. The letter reads: 271 [text missing due to tear], Glasgow, 1897 Dear Mama, I am just writing you a letter for I like to write letters. Will you write me a letter to-night when you are sitting quiet. And if you will make me some blue cards tonight, I'll make you some white ones. Will you try your very best to get me a nice watch? I wish you would let me into play with Bessie to-morrow. I think the servant said she had not been in bed. [text missing due to tear] She did but I could [text missing] quite sure. I do hope we will get on better soon. I think this is all just now. Keep happy anyway mummy. So with love and kisses xxxxxxxxxxx From Agnes. Write soon mummy please. [There is a little doodle in the bottom right corner of a woman, labelled as Auntie Ellen stamping her umbrella]

Agnes wrote this letter when she was eight years old, in the same year that public transport began operating in Glasgow. She mentions her friend Bessie with whom we know she performed dramatic plays. Agnes liked to draw pictures at the bottom of her letters. In this letter she has drawn her aunt Ellen. Ellen Toward (1835–1908) was one of Agnes’s paternal aunts. She was a dressmaker too and lived in Edinburgh.

As a widow, Agnes’s mother supported herself and her daughter through her work as a dressmaker. There were no widow pensions from the state until 1925 and so there was only one income to support the mother and daughter. Close relatives might have helped looked after Agnes while her mum was working.

A montage image of 2 pages of a handwritten letter behind a sepia school class photo of young girls with their teacher. The letter reads: Gladheim, Park Road, Southport [printed in the top right corner] My dear Agnes, You will no doubt be surprise when you see my adress at the top. You will see that I have enclosed a card for Minnie as I don't know her address so will you please give it to her a also my address. I will be very pleased to have a line from both of you if it is ever such a small one. I suppose you envy me and I not surprised. I think I will draw to a close as I have nothing more to say that would interest you at present. I remain yours truly Muriel Fox xxxxxxxxxx for Agnes xxxxxxxxxxxx for Minnie

This is a letter sent to a young Agnes by her friend Muriel. Muriel Fox attended Garnethill Public School with Agnes and became a close childhood friend. Garnethill School was on the same street as the Tenement House.

At a time when holidays were a luxury, Muriel was lucky enough to travel down south on holiday to the English coast. This was certainly something to brag about with your friends!

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